Earlier this month, a jury awarded the estate of Marvin Gaye $7.4 million for what they saw as copyright infringement and plagiarism by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.
The case centered around the 2013 song Blurred Lines, which the Gaye estate felt borrowed too heavily from the 1977 Marvin Gaye song “Got to Give it Up”. Though the Gaye estate was limited to just the composition of the song, which didn’t include many elements found in the recorded version, the estate was still able to prove its case to the satisfaction of the jury, which found in favor of the estate.
But almost immediately after the verdict was announced, it became the target of controversy with some in the music industry saying that it would have a chilling effect on originality in music. But while the such dire predictions are unlikely to come true, it has sparked a global conversation about plagiarism in music that has, inevitably, expanded to other fields, including academia.
While it might seem that popular music, with its long history of uncleared samples and common structures, would have little to do with academia, known for its rigid citation rules and styles, the truth is that there is a lot of overlap in the issues raised.
The biggest of those issues is how blurry plagiarism can be at times.
As with the Blurred Lines case, there are plenty of situations in academia where two reasonable people can look at the same evidence and reach drastically different conclusions.
We see this a great deal in research, especially on issues such as recycling one’s previous work, duplication in the methodology and the role of ghostwriting in general. But even beyond those particular issues, there are broader ones such as “When is text changed enough to be considered paraphrased?” and “When does a fact require attribution?”
While these issues might seem to be somewhat basic, they come up frequently in plagiarism investigations at journals and other publications. Also, as with the Blurred Lines case, there is a lot of legitimate disagreement about where the boundaries are.
This puts a lot of focus on who decides what is and is not plagiarism. While Thicke and Williams had a jury that was deliberately filled with non-experts, make the decision, academic plagiarists are usually in the hands of editors, ethics boards and other colleagues in the field. Where the fate of Blurred Lines was in the hands of eight people, an academic accused of plagiarism may have their fate decided by just one.
To be clear, both approaches have deep flaws and produce wildly inconsistent results. Also, when dealing with academic plagiarism, it is crucial to have experts in the field offering commentary. Still, journals and schools alike could do more to encourage disagreement and discussion about plagiarism issues, especially in borderline cases.
In these matters, if reasonable people can disagree, then they probably should. Because it’s only through those conversations and disagreements that we can get a better grip on where the boundaries lie with attribution and what responses are appropriate for different infractions.
This is because, unlike Thicke and Williams, academic plagiarism doesn’t have a unified court system that it can pull from. There is no case law or case history to pull from outside of the institution, publication or publisher. If we want real debate and discussion on these issues, we have to first acknowledge that many issues are not black and white and then actively seek input, especially from those we disagree with, to broaden our views.
While the Blurred Lines ruling may be controversial, so are countless other plagiarism-related rulings, both in and out of court. The only way we can grow is to disagree productively, which is exactly how research is supposed to work to begin with.
The views of this blog represent my own and not the views of WriteCheck.